Two weeks ago, I quit my tenured position as an associate professor at the University of Maryland, College Park to explore consulting opportunities in private practice. I am, in effect, retiring from higher education. As a staunch proponent of people-centered and human-centered historic preservation, I have learned in a particularly painful way that higher education is more interested in supporting the status quo and upholding a check-the-box mentality that values process more than social justice outcomes. In these characteristics, higher education mirrors preservation orthodoxy, which has done a far better job in preserving its doctrine and regulations than in preserving anything in the built environment.
In the end, my decision came down to self-preservation, but I also realized that by remaining in a program that would not change, I was perpetuating social injustice by tacitly upholding and perpetuating a biased curriculum that has not changed significantly since the program was created twenty years ago. In my program, I found that syllabi had not changed in decades and people with non-dominant racial and ethnic identities were severely underrepresented in course topics, readings, and guest lecturers; for decades, our faculty have been mostly white and male and our students were also mostly white; and diversity/inclusion/equity/social justice was largely represented, in a token fashion, in one class. When I questioned this status quo and, especially, when I tried to replace part-time instructors who were under-performing with more diverse and qualified faculty, I unleashed a fury in my program, directed at me, that made my professional life a living hell.
To be sure, my program is but a microcosm of the broader preservation universe. Through my many years of research, it is patently clear that people-centered change in the preservation field can only come from outside the field—mostly from planning, but also public humanities. A diversity/inclusion/equity/social justice curriculum fundamentally challenges the deeply-held values of a significant number of the white people—academics, students, practitioners—in the preservation field. For these individuals, there is a deep, psychological fascination with the physical characteristics of buildings or archaeological artifacts. The sad reality is that by placing their own personal interests in historical artifacts above community needs, these academics/students/professionals in the preservation field tacitly reject the desire of marginalized communities to redefine authenticity and heritage on their own terms because, in many cases, this empowerment deprecates the singular value of the physical, material existence of heritage objects. This is why many white people in the field will say they support diversity and inclusion work, but will not actually take action to empower marginalized communities beyond these token gestures. And, sadly, these same individuals will lash out and attack those who challenge this status quo, including people from allied built environment and social science disciplines.
I have no evidence to be able to generalize to what extent people who identify as white/non-Latinx value or do not value people-centered preservation, but all it takes is a few nay-sayers to continually derail change in practice and education, especially if these people are in positions of power. To be sure, however, there are many people with this identity who, like me, very much support people-centered historic preservation and have also been attacked for this support, such as Thomas King, Richard Hutchings, Marina La Salle, and David Rotenstein; their stories are much like mine. We eventually withdrew from the orthodox historic preservation/cultural resource management field because fabric-centered preservationists would not tolerate heretics who questioned both the orthodoxy of a fundamental belief in fabric/physicality and a bureaucracy that was only interested in sustaining the dominant racial group’s values.
The only way out of this quagmire is to create a pipeline of new professionals who embrace people-centered approaches in the field, but this is where the failings of higher education become particularly poignant. For the fifty years that historic preservation degree programs have existed in the US, they have consistently failed to recruit students that represent racial and ethnic diversity. The US Department of Education statistics show that, for decades, more than 90% of graduates of these programs identify as white and non-Hispanic/Latino, and, importantly, there is no trend in these numbers changing. Yet, research shows that minoritized students, such as African American students, are far more likely to choose a degree major that helps people. If the diversity of students could be increased in historic preservation degree programs, it seems rather likely that a new pipeline of people-centered practitioners would help to change the field.
To recruit more diverse students into historic preservation degree programs, however, requires a sea change in how “historic preservation” is taught. There is a direct relationship between the curricula of these programs and the ability of these programs to recruit diverse students. Evidence shows that BIPoC students interested in historic preservation preferentially choose programs in public humanities, such as the one at Brown University. When the historic preservation program at the University of Minnesota radically changed its traditional curriculum to embrace the public humanities several years ago, students who identified with non-dominant racial and ethnic identities increased manifold. Yet, a scan of the historic preservation curricula of higher education degree programs in the US shows that their curricula are still highly derivative of the original 1973 historic preservation degree curriculum established by Columbia University and later amplified by Cornell University and others in the later 1970s. Again, the historic preservation field is doing an excellent job in “preserving,” but it is preserving the wrong things.
This is why urban and regional planning and public humanities programs are places where innovation in historic preservation education are most likely to happen. The vast majority of academic leaders for people-centered change in historic preservation — e.g., Andrea Roberts, Fallon Aidoo, Sara Bronin, Jennifer Minner, and Michelle Magalong — were educated in urban planning and overwhelmingly work in these departments in higher education; their academic appointments are not in historic preservation programs with few exceptions. In their teaching and research, these scholars seek a balance between people and fabric that is essential for advancing the social justice aims of the preservation field and view the relationship between people/place/buildings as synergistic rather than adversarial; people must come first, before the buildings, and, by helping people, you can then save places.
These leaders represent the future of the field and should be nourished, supported, and celebrated. They should be encouraged to create new and innovative historic preservation degree programs free of the dogmatism and white supremacy of historic preservation doctrines and regulations. More educational leaders—especially deans and provosts—need to create spaces that allow these kinds of scholars to flourish and innovate. It is time for preservation education to move beyond token gestures toward authentic change that centers the voices of people with non-dominant racial, ethnic, sexual, gender, and religious identities. And, the only way that this can happen is to put social justice outcomes ahead of bureaucratic processes in higher education in which one nay-sayer can continually derail needed change. But, such a radical change would require re-evaluating what shared faculty governance should look like and ways to hold tenured faculty accountable for unprofessional and racist behavior. I don’t purport to have the answers to these problems, but until academic leaders start addressing these problems honestly and tying them to ethical obligations to our students, someone else will be writing a letter like this in twenty years.
For empirical evidence to substantiate some of the claims I make in this post, refer to:
- J. Wells. (2021). 10 Ways Historic Preservation Policy Supports White Supremacy and 10 Ideas to End It.
- J. Wells. (2021). Does intra-disciplinary historic preservation scholarship address the exigent issues of practice? Exploring the character and impact of preservation knowledge production in relation to critical heritage studies, equity, and social justice. International Journal of Heritage Studies, 27(5), 449-469.
- J. Wells, M. Chalana, S. Hoffman, B. Stiefel. (2022). A summary of preservation education in relation to diversity, inclusion, equity, and social justice and some recommendations: A report by the Equity and Inclusion in Preservation Education Committee of the National Council for Preservation Education, February 2022.